Exercise Improves Memory for those at Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

Exercise may help improve cognitive function in people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, according to a recent University of Maryland School of Public Health study.

It is the first study of its kind to demonstrate that older adults who have MCI can benefit from exercise intervention, improving brain function as well as memory recall.

A certain amount of memory loss is normal as we grow older. However,  significant memory loss, or mild cognitive impairment (MCI), can be an early warning sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

“No study has shown that a drug can do what we showed is possible with exercise,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. J. Carson Smith.

The study involved two groups of inactive adults between 60 and 88 years old. One group was made of people diagnosed with MCI, the other group members were not. Using functional neuroimaging before and after a three-month exercise program, researchers tested participants’ memories using famous names and performing recall tasks.

Under the guidance of a personal trainer, the moderate exercise regimen was concentrated on treadmill walking. Not unexpectedly, cardiovascular fitness was improved by 10 percent for people in both groups.

Post exercise intervention scans revealed that both groups also experienced enhanced memory performance and neural efficiency. Those regions of the brain are the same ones that play a role in Alzheimer’s disease.

“Basically, they were using fewer neural resources to perform the same memory task, said Dr. Smith. “ People with MCI are on a very sharp decline in their memory function, so being able to improve their recall is a very big step in the right direction.”

No strenuous exercises were necessary. The amount of exercise for the study was in line with normal recommendations for adults in this age group. Moderate intensity exercise is that which allows you to carry on a conversation while managing to increase heart rate and cause some perspiration. One hundred and fifty minutes a week is recommended.

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but research like this offers a world of encouragement for people who have been diagnosed with MCI.

Details of the study were published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Smith is assistant professor at the Department of Kinesiology. He plans to conduct more research on this topic on a larger scale. He hopes to include people who carry a genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Along with his research team, Smith wants to find out if exercise can ward off Alzheimer’s disease, or at least slow its progression.

At the very least, it’s another good reason to keep exercising as we age.

Journal Reference:

  1. Smith, J.C., Nielson, K.A., Antuono, P., Lyons, J., Hanson, R.J., Butts, A., Hantke, N.C., Verber, M. Semantic Memory Functional MRI and Cognitive Function After Exercise Intervention in Mild Cognitive Impairment. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 2013

By Ian Duncan

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